Report on ISSOTL16: Opportunities for SoTL in Art History

Earlier this month, I visited Los Angeles to attend ISSOTL 2016, the annual conference of the International Society for the Scholarship of Teaching and Learning. I was there to present a paper on behalf of AHTR detailing our process to establish Art History Pedagogy and Practice as the first peer-reviewed journal of SoTL in art history. The conference allowed me to connect with a growing group of scholars from all over the world, who are actively engaged in SoTL projects, and to learn from others who, like AHTR, have been working to advocate for practitioner-based pedagogical research in their disciplines, as well as on their individual campuses.  

The conference was also a chance to learn about the range of practices and research methods used in SoTL projects, and it inspired me to consider how the discipline of art history might contribute to this emerging field. As Kelly Donahue Wallace and Denise Baxter have said, SoTL in art history requires us to move beyond the anecdotal accounts of our classroom experiments and their perceived impact, which characterize much of the existing literature. Like our discovery research (1),  SoTL-AH must begin with the clear articulation of a question about our students’ learning, or in the words of Randy Bass, the “problems” we encounter in the classroom that are “worth pursuing as an ongoing intellectual focus.” Once the question is defined, scholars should conduct a literature review of similar studies, determine what evidence would be appropriate to their inquiry, and develop a research method aligned with their project’s goals.  

For art historians new to SoTL, there are many useful resources to support entry into this area  of research. Pat Hutching’s introduction to Opening Lines, essential reading in SoTL, describes a taxonomy of questions that serves as an excellent starting point. Peter Felten’s discussion of best practices in SoTL also articulates ways to ensure scholarly rigor and suggests different models that can be applied.  Online tutorials and expansive bibliographies intended to introduce faculty to SoTL are wonderful to review, but these can feel overwhelming, especially to newcomers. At ISSOTL, Curtis Bennett, part of an early cohort of CASTL scholars at the Carnegie Center for the Advancement of Teaching and Learning, shared this short document, inspired by lessons he’s learned since beginning his work in SoTL.   

For art historians, it’s important to realize that SoTL does not require expertise in quantitative research methods. Some tensions exist between SoTL and learning sciences that tend to privilege experimental models; but, as advocates of SoTL, and as humanists, skilled at addressing the ambiguities and inherent contradictions of the subjects we pursue, art historians recognize the intellectual rigor and academic value in the analysis of qualitative data. While surveys and graded assessments may offer insight into student performance, qualitative research methods are well suited to acknowledge the complexities of teaching and learning. These can be used effectively to present a more nuanced understanding of our students’ behaviors, skills, and knowledges, an awareness that seems especially relevant at a time when higher education must better address issues of diversity in the classroom.(2) ISSOTL’s Arts and Humanities Interest Group, led by Nancy Chick at the Taylor Institute for Teaching and Learning at the University of Calgary, has created a robust set of resources to support use of qualitative research in SoTL projects that art historians will find helpful.  If you’re interested in learning more, consider participating in (Re)imagining Humanities Teaching: Innovations in Course Design at the University of Kansas (session proposals due Dec.15, 2016).

AHTR’s 2015 survey on SoTL in art history revealed that academic art historians lack familiarity with SoTL, and we need instruction in its methods and practice. However, my experience at ISSOTL16 also suggests significant opportunity for art historians to contribute meaningfully to the future of the field. As SoTL continues to grow, it would benefit from a broader spectrum of analytical tools, compelling visualizations of qualitative data, and strategies for making SoTL accessible to the public in order to advocate its value beyond higher education. Particularly, advancements in digital art history seem poised to help address these concerns by providing scholars new strategies to engage with expansive fields of qualitative data. In the coming months, AHTR plans to continue our work with colleagues in SoTL, art history, and the digital humanities to explore these ideas and make the most of their potential.  

  1. In Boyer’s landmark report, he distinguished scholarly activity to encompass research toward discovery, integration, application, and teaching.  Discovery research refers to the pursuit of new disciplinary knowledge  pursued for its own sake and intellectual contribution. See Ernest L. Boyer, “Scholarship revisited.” Princeton, NJ: Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching (1990): 17-18.
  2. See Stephen Bloch-Schulman and Sherry Linkon, eds., Arts and Humanities in SoTL: A Return to the Big Tent (Special Section) in Teaching and Learning Inquiry, 4.1 (June, 2016)  

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